Prehistoric Fire Fossils Shed Light on Wildfires During the Dino Era

Jun 06, 2014 04:22 PM EDT

Upon finding evidence of a 66-million-year-old forest fire fossil, archaeologists are realizing that forests from the dino-era recovered from fires in the same manner they do today. They've discovered the first fossil-record evidence of forest fire ecology in Canada, revealing a bit more about the ancient climate of our planet.

Researchers managed to create a snapshot of Earth's ecology just before the mass extinction of the dinosaurs, not only revealing that Earth was warmer and wetter than it is today, but also showing how forests recovered from a wildfire.

"Excavating plant fossils preserved in rocks deposited during the last days of the dinosaurs, we found some preserved with abundant fossilized charcoal and others without it. From this, we were able to reconstruct what the Cretaceous forests looked like with and without fire disturbance," Hans Larsson of McGill University, one of the researchers, said in a news release.

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The scientists also found that at the forest fire site, the plants were dominated by flora quite similar to the kinds that begin forest recovery today. Ancient forests recovered much like current ones, with plants like alder, birch, and sassafras present in early stages before making way for sequoia and ginkgo trees.

"We were looking at the direct result of a 66-million-year old forest fire, preserved in stone," said study author Emily Bamforth. "Moreover, we now have evidence that the mean annual temperature in southern Saskatchewan was 10-12 degrees Celsius warmer than today, with almost six times as much precipitation."

Researchers for the first time can use plant fossils to determine what kind of climate the dinosaurs lived in before they disappeared from the world, possibly providing some insight into their extinction.

"We won't be able to fully understand the extinction dynamics until we understand what normal ecological processes were going on in the background." Larsson added.

The findings were published in the journal Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology.

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